the year before the storm.

1913 by Florian Illies (2012)
the Year Before the Storm
 
1913; The year before the Great War. Hitler, Stalin and Tito are once at the same time in Austria. Franz Kafka is hopelessly in love and writes countless letters to his object of desire. Freud and Jung argue about psychology while the stunning Alma runs from artist to artist. Do they have any idea of what is coming? Written in monthly instalments, we follow a bunch of famous people through 1913.

The notes are interesting, funny and thought-provoking.  Especially those which involve things that are to come, like a Leonardo DiCaprio reference when talking about Titanic. The book is also interesting because we know what will happen. But I didn’t really get to truly enjoy it as I had no idea who most of the characters are. Although I understand the point of just following the characters through the year, I wish there would be some sort of summary or conclusion. Read it if you’re interested in cultural history, drop it if you’re not.

february/march.

Another short summary of the latest books I have read. Two very good ones, one so-so, and one that disappointed despite having the prettiest name and cover. An interesting note is that the two débutantes chose to write in English, and not their native tongues. And then I might have a new author amongst my favourites.

7. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford (2004)
Tags: non-fiction, state of the nation, war and travel, biography, usa

 “The Mongols made no technological breakthroughs, founded no new religions, wrote few books or dramas, and gave the world no new crops or methods of agriculture. Their own craftsmen could not weave cloth, cast metal, make pottery, or even bake bread. They manufactured neither porcelain nor pottery, painted no pictures, and built no buildings. Yet, as their army conquered culture after culture, they collected and passed all of these skills from one civilization to the next.”

Genghis Khan (1162-1227) was the man who united the Mongols and then created an enormous empire. This book gives a thorough account of his life and what happened to the empire after his death. Definitely entertaining and I learnt a lot (like that the empire crumbled as the black plague spread). Definitely a good pick if you want to learn more about the Mongols. I read this in the beginning of February as a part of Ingalill’s biography reading circle where that month’s topic was men with moustaches.

8. Drop City by T. Coraghessan Boyle (2003)

 Tags: books you should read, sex drugs and rock’n’roll, war and travel, 1001 books, books about the arctic, usa

A community of hippies are forced to leave their property in California after too many encounters with the police. Where can no one bother them? Alaska. So they pack everything they own, including goats, into an old bus and set off. Meanwhile, in Alaska, Sess Harder has lived alone for years running a trap line by a remote river, but now he’s getting hitched. How will they get along with hippies as neighbours?

I loved this book from the first page and I never wanted it to end. It’s hilarious, sad and violent. I think I have discovered a new dirty old man to add to my favourites, and I’m thrilled that he has written so many books to discover.

9. Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck (2014)

 Tags: crime and mystery, sweden, historical novels, books about the arctic, state of the nation, supernatural

‘Wolf winter,’ she said, her voice small. ‘I wanted to ask about it. You know, what it is.’
He was silent for a long time. ‘It’s the kind of winter that will remind us we are mortal,’ he said. ‘Mortal and alone.’ 

 Swedish Lappland, 1717. A family has just moved to Blackåsen from Finland. Then one day when the girls are out looking after the animals, they find a dead man. It looks like an animal has torn him up, and people speaks of the devil, but Maija is convinced that this is done by a human. But who?

I liked the book for the story, the setting and the characters. The writing is also good. But there are too many loose ends towards the end of the book, so I was left with too many questions at the end to really enjoy it. 

 

10. Wildalone by Krassi Zourkava (2015)
Tags: family and self, crime and mystery, supernatural, bulgaria, not impressed, sex drugs and rock’n’roll

Thea is a talented Bulgarian pianist who has just started at Princeton, just like her sister did 15 years earlier. But her sister never graduated, as she died at Princeton, and then her body was stolen from the funeral home and hasn’t been found. Thea loves Princeton, and she quickly meet the man of her dreams, but there is an air of mystery surrounding him.

This book was just too much. I got 50 shades of grey vibes from the Thea’s love interest and the mix of modern life and ancient Greek myths was exciting until the point when it just got too much. I had to read the end several times, and I still don’t get it. It was also too easy to guess what was going to happen. And apparently this is the first book in a saga… No, just no. 

Now, if only I can finish Gösta Berling’s Saga before Easter… It’s good, but I can only handle it in small doses.

the Fox sisters.

Talking to the Dead by Barbara Weisberg (2004)
Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism

Kate was 14 and Maggie 11 in 1848, when they started hearing strange rapping in their bedroom. After a while, they realized they could communicate with the dead through the rapping. Through the communication they learnt that the spirit they were talking with had been murdered in the house they lived. Bewildered neighbours came to watch the seances. Rumour about the sisters’ abilities spread, and they are today known as the symbols of modern spiritualism.

The rapping evolved into playing of instruments, pulling of hair and slaps in the face and the spirits becoming visible. And one of the spirits that often visited them was Benjamin Franklin. Many famous people met the sisters throughout the years, even the Presidents’ wives. All through this, the girls were put to many tests, often scandalously only in their undergarments.  Their much older sister, Leah, was the one who arranged the seances and probably took most of the money as well. But it was the spirits that demanded that they should hold the meetings.

Although the girls were famous, their lives were sad. Both had broken hearts after love affairs gone wrong, and they both got addicted to alcohol and drugs. A few years before her death, Maggie confessed that it all had been a hoax and she travelled around showing how they made the raps.

It was an interesting read, and I learnt a lot about life in the late 1800s. But somehow I still felt like I couldn’t quite get under the skin of the Fox sister. I’m also glad that the book wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be, and I definitely believe that it was all hoax. I would never have read this book if it weren’t for Ingalill’s biography reading circle which was about alternative lifestyles this round. I chose the Fox sisters after listening to a radio programme about spiritualism, and I was curious about how it all started. And now I know.

the birth of a nation through a child’s eyes.

A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz (2002)
“When my father was a young man in Vilna, every wall in Europe said, ‘Jews go home to Palestine.’ Fifty years later, when he went back to Europe on a visit, the walls all screamed, ‘Jews get out of Palestine.'”

  Amos was 9 when Israel became a nation. And 12 when his mother committed suicide. In his memoir, he tells the story of his family and how they suddenly found themselves in the Holy Land. He also gives an insight about what it was like being a child in Jerusalem under the making of Israel. But most importantly, it’s about the joys and sorrows of a family.

 Beautifully written, it’s both tragic and funny at the same time. I have had a hard time coming up with something clever to say about it, and that usually means that the book is great.

What I liked best about the book, is that it doesn’t feel like a memoir at all. I think it’s because the story isn’t chronological, but jumps back and forth in time. I also learnt a lot from the book. The most eye-opening information, at least for me, was the British involvement when Israel was created. It also reminded me how much I need to read Jerusalem. Needless to say that I have definitely added more books by Amos Oz to my reading list. I’m also excited that Natalie Portman is making this book into a film. 

I read this as a part of Bjørg and Hedda‘s off-the-shelf challenge, this time the theme was Asia. And A Tale of Love and Darkness has been on my shelf since 2011, so about time.

Recipes for the heart and soul.

Just showing off some of my new purchases. Recipes and remedies for whatever the autumn has in store for me. How about a Bridget Jones’ Daiquiri and a slice of Really easy chocolate cake with chilli salt and tequila while trying to cure your fear of commitment by reading Blindness by José Saramago? Bring it on, I say!

seven.

Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang (2013)
The Concubine Who Launched Modern China
Empress Dowager Cixi, born in 1835, ruled China until her death in 1908. She was the one who modernised China, and fought wars against Japan and the great European powers. But as Cixi was just the Empress Dowager she had to rule behind the curtain and make sure that the Emperor was under her thumb.
Because she was just a concubine, and not married to the Emperor, she was not entitled to any power. But the Empress had not given birth to any sons, something which Cixi managed to do. When the Emperor died, her son, Tongzhi, was made the Emperor and Cixi, along with the Empress, were upgraded to Empress Dowagers. As Tongzhi was only 5, the Empress Dowgers were in charge. They also staged a coup which resulted in the removal of the Emperor’s advisors and the insertion of Cixi’s trusted men.

Her son became the ruler when he was married. Cixi stayed away from politics, but she didn’t agree with her son’s decisions. Tongzhi died in 1875, and because he had no sons, a boy was chosen and adopted by the Dowager Empresses to become the new Emperor. When Ci’an died in 1881, Cixi became the sole ruler until the boy, Guangxu, was old enough to rule himself.

In this period, Cixi had a lot of enemies. The most famous one was Wild Fox Kang who tried to murder Cixi several times. He didn’t succeed and Cixi found out about it. She believed that the Emperor himself was in on it, and successfully put him in house arrest so she again became the ruler, and this time she was in power until her death. This period was marked by the Boxer rebellion and the following war with the European powers. And after the war, China needed to reform in order to survive.

Although the book gives a detailed account of the life of Cixi, I never felt that I got to know her. I found her boring, and I also felt that Jung Chang spent a lot of time defending her. It also gives a detailed account of China at that time, and I definitely learnt a lot about Chinese history.  I became more fascinated by Wild Fox Kang, and I’m glad that Jung Chang wrote so much about him as well. The collection of pictures in the end was also very fascinating.

I’m going to read Wild Swans later this year, and Mao is also going to be read sooner or later, probably as a part of Ingalill’s superb biographies reading circle which this book was a part of.

fifty-six.

Helter Skelter by Bugliosi & Gentry (1974)
the True Story of the Manson Murders
 Helter Skelter is a song by the Beatles. Charles Manson believed that the Beatles spoke to him through the White Album and that they ordered the Family to start a race war.

On the night to 9th August 1969, four members of the Family broke into the house rented by Roman Polanski and his wife, Sharon Tate, and killed 5 people. One of them was Sharon who was over 8 months pregnant. The killers wrote pig on the front door using blood. A day later, seven members of the family set out again to kill. This time the victims were the La Bianca family, and both victims were tied up and brutally murdered. The killers wrote the words healter skelter, rise, death to pigs with blood when leaving the house.

The investigation is a mess, and it took a long time before the police connected the two cases. The trial which followed, was the longest and most expensive, and resulted in the death penalty for Charles Manson and three of the girls.

The book is written by Vincent Bugliosi who was the prosecutor in the case, with the help of Curt Gentry. That means that this is a thorough account of the entire case, starting with the murders, and then to the trial. It also gives a detailed account of Manson’s life and the way he gathered the Family members. The afterwords, written 25 years after the trial, tells what happened to the members of the Family since then.

It is a long and really detailed book, with nearly 700 pages. As it is written by the prosecutor, I felt that a lot of it is not really necessary to get a clear picture of the murders and the trials. But then again I don’t feel that I need to ever read another book about Manson again. It is the most sold true crime book in history, read it if you’re curious about the cult and the murders.

forty-one.

Country Girl by Edna O’Brien (2012)
 Edna O’Brien is an Irish author, born in 1930. Her first book, the Country Girls (1960), was banned in Ireland as it sparked a lot of controversy because it describes the sexual tensions between girls in Catholic schools and the sexual relationship between non-married couples. In her memoir she gives glimpses of a life which started in the poor Irish countryside to dinner parties with the rich and famous in London and New York. 
the Country Girls trilogy is based on her own experiences; a childhood in a strict religious home, crushing on the nuns in the convent she was educated in and running off with a married man. I read the trilogy last summer, and I’m glad I did before I read the memoir, and it is interesting to compare the fiction to the reality. I really enjoyed the reality; she does a marvellous job describing the scene when her family comes looking for her and the fight which followed. She eventually marries the man, Ernest Gébler, and they have two children together. But the marriage doesn’t last, and the battle between the couple, and especially over the custody of the children, is heartbreaking.
She also describes the amazing parties with famous people and drugs in the 60s and 70s. There is plenty of name-dropping and anecdotes. My favourites were when her children was sung to sleep by Paul McCartney and when she was kissed by Jude Law (I love that she describes him as an Adonis). But she is at her best when she describes her surroundings; the houses and cities she has lived it. She also gives a crash-course in the Troubles in Northern-Ireland, and I think it is the best chapter in the book. 
Although it was fascinating to read about her life, I felt that she was distant; I never really got to know Edna, but got a good look at the world through her eyes. She is good at describing other people and the books and writers which influence her. She doesn’t say much about her own work, except mention it in relation to other people. I enjoyed the memoir, and I will definitely keep reading her books. And so should you!
I bought the memoir when it was published last year, and I’ve been meaning to read it right away (as I always do, the problem is that I buy too many books). Ingalill’s biographies challenge gave me the push I needed to finally do so.     

thirty-three.

the Second World War by Antony Beevor (2012)
The Second World War was a 6 year long and the most devastating in history. Antony Beevor’s book explains why and how the war started, and gives a detailed and chronological description of the events mixed with witness accounts. It is a great book which explains the unfathomable. From the rape of Nanking to the holocaust, not to mention the deaths of millions of soldiers and civilians. 
I can’t say I enjoyed reading it, the events are too terrible and real, but I definitely liked Beevor’s style. Although I think he focused too much on the details of some battles (like which division attacked which), he did a great job explaining the horrors of the war. The only thing I missed, was the mentioning of the war in Finnmark. I was surprised that it was completely left out, while other events in Norway was mentioned. But apart from that, I think all the other main events are in there, and I learnt a lot of new things. I really liked the story which opens the book, and I have used that as a starter when teaching the subject to the 14 year olds. 
A must-read for those who want to learn more about the Second World War!

twenty-one.

the First World War by Michael Howard (2002)
A Very Short Introduction
How did the Great War start? And what happened?
I was going to teach my super smart class about World War I and I knew that I needed to come prepared to class, so I bought this small book of 156 pages and used it prepare myself.
It gives a very good overview of the reasons the different countries had to enter the war and a good overview of what happened in the war, both on the battlefields and back home in the major participating countries. But I missed a couple of things when reading it. Most importantly a simple time line because there are a lot of dates to keep track of. And then I would have liked more pictures, maps and statistics. 
And although it didn’t answer all my kids’ question like what did Japan do and how did it go with Serbia, it definitely made me able to do a much better job teaching the subject. 
  • Oxford University Press has published many Very Short Introductions books on a whole range of topics and I will probably pick of more of them on topics I feel I know too little about.